The opening narration of Jim Henson's 1982 cult classic The Dark Crystal lays out the history of the world known as Thra, with all the background needed to understand the schism between the grotesque Skeksis and the peaceful Mystics, and the culling of the simple Gelfling race who once populated much of Thra. The Skeksis are bad, the Mystics are good, and the only two remaining Gelfling must bring harmony to Thra by repairing the Crystal that provides balance to the world. It's pretty basic fantasy stuff, and the movie isn't successful because of an ambitious or original narrative; the appeal of The Dark Crystal is in the creative creature design from artist Brian Froud, as implemented by Henson and his team of expert puppeteers.
So it seems misguided for the new 10-episode Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to devote its entire running time to expanding on those brief moments of expository narration. Nothing in that opening explanation cried out for further exploration, and anyone who's seen the original movie knows where things will wind up at the end. Age of Resistance is like the Star Wars prequels of the Dark Crystal universe, filling in gaps that didn't need to be filled in, and focusing heavily on political machinations among rival factions. There's even a subplot about tariffs.
Set 50 years before the events of the movie, Age of Resistance opens when Gelfling society is still thriving, albeit in thrall to the lizard-like Skeksis, guardians of the Crystal. Creators Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews have developed a wide-ranging world of Gelfling, who are divided into seven clans in a tentative alliance. The Gelfling serve the Skeksis in various support roles, and the clans are all obligated to pay tribute to the Skeksis.
While Jen and Kira, the Gelfling of the movie, knew the Skeksis as evil overlords who wiped out their race, here the majority of the Gelfling view the Skeksis as benevolent protectors. But as the greedy Skeksis seek to draw more power from the Crystal, they put more pressure on the Gelfling to serve as fodder for their experiments and ambitions. The series' main characters are three young Gelfling who realize that something is wrong, and that a sickness they call the Darkening is spreading across Thra, caused by the Skeksis' overuse of the Crystal's powers.
Rian (Taron Egerton) is a guard at the Skeksis palace, who stumbles across a machine the Skeksis have invented for draining the "essence" from other life forms (as seen in the movie). He's accused of murdering a fellow Gelfling who's the machine's first test subject, and he becomes a fugitive from the Skeksis and from his own kind, led by his father Ordon (Mark Strong), captain of the palace guard.
Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a princess of the ruling Vapra clan, a wide-eyed dreamer compared to her more practical sisters. She spends her days studying books, and she has a vision of a strange symbol that sends her on a search for answers about the true nature of Thra and the Crystal (and angers her mother, the Gelfling ruler known as the All-Maudra, in the process). Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel) is a cheerful member of the underground-dwelling Grottan clan, who receives a vision from the ancient Sanctuary Tree and sets out to warn the All-Maudra of the Darkening and the coming crisis.
All three Gelfling embark on meandering quests that will eventually place them in direct conflict with the Skeksis, but the series (which has to fill five times as much screen time as the movie) is full of padding, especially in the tedious scenes of the vain, petty Skeksis squabbling with each other. The first episode opens with three and a half minutes of solid narration (Sigourney Weaver) to explain the fairly rudimentary set-up, and there are long, unnecessary detours that seem meant to expand the world of Thra, but are mostly just easily skippable filler. There's a mind-numbingly detailed sequence at the beginning of the second episode chronicling the morning routine of the Podling housekeeper to ancient sorceress Aughra, a character who's then never seen again.
Aughra (Donna Kimball, replacing the late Billie Whitelaw) is the only character aside from the Skeksis who returns from the original movie, and she takes a sort of Gandalf-ian role in corralling the fellowship of the Gelfling. The series makes extensive use of the idea of "dreamfasting," the telepathic connection that Gelfling can create with each other, which was introduced briefly in the movie, and Aughra is able to take the Gelfling into the "dream space," where multiple minds meld together, mostly to recap events from previous episodes, like a really elaborate telepathic clip show.
What was truly impressive in 1982 now looks mostly awkward and outdated, although Froud has returned to design new creatures and landscapes. The Gelfling puppets are still stiff and inexpressive, and the more extensive use of CGI (mainly to expand the locations) fits poorly with the lumbering physical creations. The producers have recruited dozens of celebrities to provide voices for even the most minor characters, but the vast majority of them are unrecognizable. The famous people voicing the Skeksis are especially useless, all affecting more or less the same cartoonish "evil" voice.
The original Dark Crystal was a personal passion project for Henson, and it's fascinating as much for how earnest and clumsy it is as for how well it works (or doesn't work) as epic fantasy. Making it into a modern streaming drama, with drawn-out episode lengths and carefully managed fan service, helmed by a journeyman action director (Louis Leterrier of Clash of the Titans and The Incredible Hulk), robs it of whatever charm it once had. Now it's just ungainly and irritating, a painstakingly resurrected relic with no life left in it.
Starring the voices of Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel and Donna Kimball, the 10-episode The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres August 30 on Netflix.